‘We’ve got two Sodjes, he’s got two yellow cards’. I’m not sure if it was my absence from a Charlton game for well over a month (since Huddersfield) but tonight seemed, and probably was, very surreal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a six-goal debacle before, but this was as close as it gets, with the game played in near storm conditions and the simple tenet of if you play in the opposition’s half you will score never seeming so true. Add in an erratic referee and you have all the makings for a night when as far as the football was concerned it was a case of forget about the beautiful game, take the win and move on.
The line-up saw Racon left on the bench and Shelvey taking the wide left berth, with Llera as expected coming in for the suspended Sodje (S), Basey at left back, and Youga on the right side of defence, albeit not for too long as he was to go off injured after about 20 minutes, with Omozusi coming on as a straight replacement. Burton and Mooney kept the places up front, with Sodje (A) also in reserve.
The early exchanges were aimless, but after 20 minutes, despite barely stringing two passes together, we were 2-0 up and Bristol Rovers were looking like the worst team bar none we had played this season. First good persistence by Sam on the right saw him win the ball and square it. Burton for some reason decided against scoring but no matter, it ran on to Mooney who took the easy chance at the far post. Not long after one of their defenders illustrated why not many footballers end up as Nobel Prize contenders. From a set piece the ref stopped the game to talk to him and Burton about their jostling in the box. Burton – who through the game was to give a fair impression of Jim Melrose in being a real pain for defenders – then took the opportunity to go down as the ball came in, the ref duly gave the penalty, and Burton helped himself, shooting low to the left.
At that point most of the crowd thought it was pretty much game over – and so it seemed did the team. The foot came off the pedal and without doing much Bristol came more into the game. It should have been a case of a brief flurry before normal service was resumed, but this ref wasn’t going to stay away from centre-stage for long (a feature of the first half being his predilection for booking our players but not theirs for almost identical offences) and shortly before the break evened things up by giving them a penalty for some equally innocuous pushing and pulling in the box. At 2-1 Rovers were suddenly back in a game that even they seemed to think had been beyond them, but even at the break the impression was that the goal should prove a wake-up call rather than cause to panic.
This was to fail to account for the elements, which got progressively worse. A swirling wind made most attempts to play football quite fruitless and the first 15 minutes of the second half belonged to Rovers. They fluffed a great chance and it was no great surprise when a corner was swept in and flicked on into the roof of the net. This really should have been game on – and the outcome was decided by two moments. Rovers had their chance to go in front, but a shot from inside the box went just wide of the far post. Then Dailly – who I thought had a splendid game – advanced without any sign of a challenge, played it in, the ball was flicked on and after the first effort went up in the air Bailey got on the end of the rebound to restore the lead.
Wagstaff came on for the ineffective Shelvey, with Sam switching to the left, and shortly after Sodje (A) came off the bench for Mooney. His first contact was a header which went narrowly over the bar and with just about his second he put the game to bed. Ball played in from the right and he put it in the net. Sounds very simply and it was.
All that remained was the farce of the ref giving a yellow card to Lines, who started to walk off having, it seemed, already been booked. But the red card stayed in the pocket. I can’t swear that he had been already booked, but it was clear he thought so – and so did enough people in the crowd. Surely, with all the furore over Henry’s handball for the French he would walk up to the ref and confess, for the sake of the game’s reputation. But doing the honourable thing didn’t seem to occur to him (just as it didn’t to the Charlton players all those years ago against Oldham). Plus ca change. The incident gave the game the absurd element that it deserved.
Again, it was no night for drawing any strong conclusions about the team. The conditions made it all but impossible. But if there are any lessons, for me they included: Llera, after being dropped, looks short of confidence. He didn’t play badly, but there isn’t the strut about him that there was at the start of the season. I hope it comes back. Wide left is still a problem. Racon needed a rest and perhaps with hindsight it would have been better to drop him for a couple of games rather than try him out on the flank. Shelvey looked out of sorts in the position. And Semedo and Bailey don’t look an ideal combination as what we gained in solidity we lost in creativity.
The final thought is that personally I was sad that I heard not a single chant for the returning Lennie. Heaven knows he deserved a standing ovation. If I missed it I apologise, if it didn’t happen he deserved better.
It wasn’t a night for player ratings (especially as after a very friendly exchange with some Bristol fans in the Rose of Denmark I’m feeling thirsty and there is yet another glass with my name on it). But plaudits on the night would go to Dailly, Omozusi (who had a shaky start after coming on but got progressively better), Burton (not so much for his football but for being a real nuisance), and Sodje (A), who just came on and scored.